Popping offstage to the Barber

FOR AN opera singer to turn opera director is a bit like a star footballer turning manager. It's a point I put to the legendary baritone Sir Thomas Allen, whose new production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville for Scottish Opera marks his UK professional debut as a stage director. "I think I know where you're going with this," Allen butts in with a wry smile. He knows exactly what he's letting himself in for. Success on the field in opera doesn't guarantee success off it.

But he's quick to assert that this is not a permanent move. "It's a frightening thing that people assume I've given up the day job," he says. He recently, of course, appeared as the narrator in the performance of Bernstein's Candide, which opened last month's Edinburgh International Festival.

At 63 Allen still has a significant diary of operatic and concert commitments, including an extraordinary production he is due to take part in next year of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi in Los Angeles, which will be directed by none other than Woody Allen.

"I have no idea what to expect," says Thomas Allen, conscious of his namesake's propensity NOT to produce, but to let his actors improvise in a free-range environment. "There's every chance Woody might even set Puccini's comedy in Brooklyn. It's a gamble for him."

Woody Allen gave little away when the project was announced earlier this summer. "I have no idea what I am doing, but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm," he said with characteristic obfuscation. Thomas Allen would never dream of hiding behind such false modesty. "These fellows have a free-roaming imagination. They're not hidebound. Can you imagine what somebody like Spielberg would do with the Ring, or with Der Freischutz?" he muses.

Next Wednesday at Glasgow's Theatre Royal, we'll see exactly what this convivial Geordie is capable of as director of his own show. Will the hero of his Scottish Opera production be a Figaro modelled in the likeness of his own numerously memorable portrayals of one of opera's most popular scalliwags? And can he inject the same infectious charm among his cast from the directors bench that he has done for four decades as a top-level performer in the very heat of the action?

It is, he says, a scary prospect, but not one he is prepared to shy away from. With a couple of successful non-professional productions already under his belt - Britten's Albert Herring for the Royal College of Music and Mozart's Don Giovanni for the Sage, Gateshead - he has already cut his directorial teeth. "Directors speak a language I don't speak, but I know what I want," says Allen. "All I can do is to take a piece and try to put my intelligent tuppenceworth into it."

Experience will count for everything. Figaro was one of Allen's first professional roles back in 1969 with Welsh National Opera, the company that gave him his first big break that same year in Verdi's La Traviata. It's a role - together with those other dashing "buffa" roles in Mozart - that has been central to Allen's repertoire throughout his international operatic career. As the Don in Don Giovanni or Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, his man-size charm and golden voice have established him among the great character singers.

Of his two early singing roles with Scottish Opera, Allen has mixed memories. The first was an outright triumph - starring in Debussy's Pellas et Mlisande with Sir Alexander Gibson conducting. "I got on fantastically well with Alex," he recalls. The other occasion was one of Scottish Opera's several unmitigated disasters - a newly commissioned version of The Beggar's Opera in 1981 by the theatre composer Guy Wolfenden, in which Allen played (with unbounded energy and complete professionalism) the eponymous hero MacHeath. "Scottish Opera thought they had a West End hit on their hands and booked a lengthy run at London's Dominion Theatre," he recalls. But by then the production had already flopped big time in its Edinburgh Festival premiere. No-one came to see it when it moved on to the 5,000-seater Dominion, signalling the start of Scottish Opera's notorious series of financial blunders.

Taking a step back from Rossini's knockabout opera has allowed Allen, as director, to take a fresh look at a familiar friend. "Neither Simon (set designer Simon Higlett) nor I go into it in a standard Goya-esque way," he reveals. "Instead we wanted to set it in a period as near to now as we could find." With today's Spain being quite another world to that of Rossini's day, Allen and his team looked elsewhere for inspiration, ultimately unearthing it in pictures of old Havana at the turn of the 20th century.

"That gave us leeway to create a credible setting - one in which references to the early 1800s could still apply, but which positioned the Count (Almaviva) and Rosina in the 20th century, dragging the others forward from the 19th century. The photographic source material was incredibly informative, right down to a house that could so easily have been Bartolo's", explains Allen.

So there's a degree of realism in this Barber of Seville, which promises a whiff a steamy Latin American intrigue. "It's about bought relationships," he says. "Opportunists, odd retainers, are everywhere. The Count keeps his distance from them. He's a misfit who is always ready to pull up the drawbridge. All it needs is a Cadillac to draw up."

Allen has enjoyed working with the Glasgow cast, some of whom are coming to the Rossini roles relatively fresh. Locally-born Karen Cargill sings Rosina in her Scottish Opera debut - although she's well-enough known to Scottish audiences on the concert stage. Even Dutch baritone Thomas Oliemans is making his UK debut as Figaro in this Scottish Opera season opener. "It's enabled us to go back to first principles - to reconstruct Beaumarchais", he says. "So much of Barber is heavily assumed. The first thing you have to do is to start from scratch". From an old hand, then, we should expect fresh ideas. More Alex Ferguson than Graeme Souness, perhaps?

• Scottish Opera's production of The Barber of Seville opens at the Theatre Royal Glasgow on 3 October, and moves to Aberdeen on 7 November, Inverness on 14 November and Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 23 November. www.scottishopera.org.uk